We Filipinos are mild drinkers. We drink for only three good reasons. We drink when we are very happy. We drink when we are very sad. And we drink for any other reason.
When the Americans recaptured the Philippines, they built an air base a few miles from our barrio. Yankee soldiers became a very common sight. I met a lot of GIs and made many friends. I could not pronounce their names. I could not tell them apart. All Americans looked alike to me. They all looked white.
One afternoon I was plowing our rice field with our carabao named Datu. I was barefooted and stripped to the waist. My pants that were made from abaca fibers and woven on homemade looms were rolled up to my knees. My bolo was at my side.
An American soldier was walking on the highway. When he saw me, he headed toward me. I stopped plowing and waited for him. I noticed he was carrying a half-pint bottle of whiskey. Whiskey bottles seemed part of the American uniform.
“Hello, my little brown brother,” he said, patting me on the head.
“Hello, Joe,” I answered.
All Americans are called Joe in the Philippines.
“I am sorry, Jose,” I replied. “There are no bars in this barrio.”
“Oh, hell! You know where I could buy more whiskey?”
“Here, have a swig. You have been working hard,” he said, offering me his half-filled bottle.
“No, thank you, Joe,” I said. “We Filipinos are mild drinkers.”
“Well, don’t you drink at all?”
“Yes, Joe, I drink, but not whiskey.”
“What the hell do you drink?”
“I drink lambanog.”
“Jungle juice, eh?”
“I guess that is what the GIs call it.”
“You know where I could buy some?”
“I have some you can have, but I do not think you will like it.”
“I’ll like it all right. Don’t worry about that. I have drunk everything—whiskey, rum, brandy, tequila, gin, champagne, sake, vodka. . . .” He mentioned many more that I cannot spell.
“I not only drink a lot, but I drink anything. I drank Chanel Number 5 when I was in France. In New Guinea I got soused on Williams’ Shaving Lotion. When I was laid up in a hospital I pie-eyed with medical alcohol. On my way here on a transport I got stoned on torpedo juice. You ain’t kidding when you say I drink a lot. So let’s have some of that jungle juice, eh?”
“All right, “I said. “I will just take this carabao to the mud hole then we can go home and drink.”
“You sure love that animal, don’t you?”
“I should,” I replied. “It does half of my work.”
“Why don’t you get two of them?”
I didn’t answer.
I unhitched Datu from the plow and led him to the mud hole. Joe was following me. Datu lay in the mud and was going: Whooooosh! Whooooosh!
Flies and other insects flew from his back and hovered in the air. A strange warm odor rose out of the muddle. A carabao does not have any sweat glands except on the nose. It has to wallow in the mud or bathe in a river every three hours. Otherwise it runs amok.
Datu shook his head and his widespread horns scooped the muddy water on his back. He rolled over and was soon covered with slimy mud. An expression of perfect contentment came into his eyes. Then he swished his tail and Joe and I had to move back from the mud hole to keep from getting splashed. I left Datu in the mud hole. Then turning to Joe, I said.
“Let us go.”
And we proceeded toward my house. Jose was cautiously looking around.
“This place is full of coconut trees,” he said.
“Don’t you have any coconut trees in America?” I asked.
“No,” he replied. “Back home we have the pine tree.”
“What is it like?”
“Oh, it is tall and stately. It goes straight up to the sky like a skyscraper. It symbolizes America.”
“Well,” I said, “the coconut tree symbolizes the Philippines. It starts up to the sky, but then its leaves sway down the earth, as if remembering the land that gave it birth. It does not forget the soil that gave it life.”
In a short while, we arrived in my nipa house. I took the bamboo ladder and leaned it against a tree. Then I climbed the ladder and picked some calamansi.
“What’s that?” Joe asked.
“Philippine lemon,” I answered. “We will need this for our drinks.”
“That is right, Joe. That is what the soldiers call it.”
I filled my pockets and then went down. I went to the garden well and washed the mud from my legs. Then we went up a bamboo ladder to my hut. It was getting dark, so I filled a coconut shell, dipped a wick in the oil and lighted the wick. It produced a flickering light. I unstrapped my bolo and hung it on the wall.
“Please sit down, Joe,” I said.
“Where?” he asked, looking around.
“Right there,” I said, pointing to the floor.
Joe sat down on the floor. I sliced the calamansi in halves, took some rough salt and laid it on the foot high table. I went to the kitchen and took the bamboo tube where I kept my lambanog.
Lambanog is a drink extracted from the coconut tree with pulverized mangrove bark thrown in to prevent spontaneous combustion. It has many uses. We use it as a remedy for snake bites, as counteractive for malaria chills, as an insecticide and for tanning carabao hide.
I poured some lambanog on two polished coconut shells and gave one of the shells to Joe. I diluted my drink with some of Joe’s whiskey. It became milky. We were both seated on the floor. I poured some of my drink on the bamboo floor; it went through the slits to the ground below.
“Hey, what are you doing,” said Joe, “throwing good liquor away?”
“No, Joe,” I said. “It is the custom here always to give back to the earth a little of what we have taken from the earth.”
“Well,” he said, raising his shell. “Here’s to the end of the war!”
“Here is to the end of the war!” I said, also lifting my shell. I gulped my drink down. I followed it with a slice of calamansi dipped in rough salt. Joe took his drink but reacted in a peculiar way.
His eyes popped out like a frog’s and his hand clutched his throat. He looked as if he had swallowed a centipede.
“Quick, a chaser!” he said.
I gave him a slice of calamansi dipped in unrefined salt. He squirted it in his mouth. But it was too late. Nothing could chase her. The calamansi did not help him. I don’t think even a coconut would have helped him.
“What is wrong, Joe?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said. “The first drink always affects me this way.”
He was panting hard and tears were rolling down his cheeks.
“Well, the first drink always acts like a minesweeper,” I said, “but this second one will be smooth.”
I filled his shell for the second time. Again I diluted my drink with Joe’s whiskey. I gave his shell. I noticed that he was beaded with perspiration. He had unbuttoned his collar and loosened his tie. Joe took his shell but he did not seem very anxious. I lifted my shell and said: “Here is to America!”
I was trying to be a good host.
“Here’s to America!” Joe said.
We both killed our drinks. Joe again reacted in a funny way. His neck stretched out like a turtle’s. And now he was panting like a carabao gone berserk. He was panting like a carabao gone amok. He was grasping his tie with one hand.
Then he looked down on his tie, threw it to one side, and said: “Oh, Christ, for a while I thought it was my tongue.”
After this he started to tinker with his teeth.
“What is wrong, Joe?” I asked, still trying to be a perfect host.
“Plenty, this damned drink has loosened my bridgework.”
As Joe exhaled, a moth flying around the flickering flame fell dead. He stared at the dead moth and said: “And they talk of DDT.”
“Well, how about another drink?” I asked. “It is what we came here for.”
“No, thanks,” he said. “I’m through.”
“OK. Just one more.”
I poured the juice in the shells and again diluted mine with whiskey. I handed Joe his drink.
Here’s to the Philippines,” he said.
“Here’s to the Philippines,” I said.
Joe took some of his drink. I could not see very clearly in the flickering light, but I could have sworn I saw smoke coming out of his ears.
“This stuff must be radioactive,” he said.
He threw the remains of his drink on the nipa wall and yelled: “Blaze, goddam you, blaze!”
Just as I was getting in the mood to drink, Joe passed out. He lay on the floor flat as a starfish. He was in a class all by himself.
I knew that the soldiers had to be back in their barracks at a certain time. So I decided to take Joe back. I tried to lift him. It was like lifting a carabao. I had to call four of my neighbors to help me carry Joe. We slung him on top of my carabao. I took my bolo from the house and strapped it on my waist. Then I proceeded to take him back. The whole barrio was wondering what had happened to the big Amerikano.
After two hours I arrived at the airfield. I found out which barracks he belonged to and took him there. His friends helped me to take him to his cot. They were glad to see him back. Everybody thanked me for taking him home. As I was leaving the barracks to go home, one of his buddies called me and said:
“Hey, you! How about a can of beer before you go?”
“No, thanks, “I said. “We Filipinos are mild drinkers.”